Higgins in mix for Chicago Cubs' backup catcher job

                                                                                                                                                                                                   
  • Chicago Cubs starting pitcher Jake Arrieta, right, and catcher P.J. Higgins walk to the dugout after warming up in the bullpen prior to the team's spring training baseball game against the Cleveland Indians on Thursday, March 18, 2021, in Goodyear, Ariz.

    Chicago Cubs starting pitcher Jake Arrieta, right, and catcher P.J. Higgins walk to the dugout after warming up in the bullpen prior to the team's spring training baseball game against the Cleveland Indians on Thursday, March 18, 2021, in Goodyear, Ariz.

 
 
Updated 3/19/2021 7:39 PM

Entrenched as the Cubs' starting catcher, Willson Contreras is getting an early jump on what should be another banner season.

The two-time all star hit his third Cactus League home run Friday in the Cubs' 6-1 win over the Athletics. Contreras was 1-for-3 vs. Oakland and is batting .346 in exhibition play.

 

Victor Caratini was Contreras' backup the past four years, but he accompanied Yu Darvish in a stunning December trade to the Padres.

The Cubs signed Austin Romine to a one-year, $1.5 million contract as Caratini's replacement, but the 32-year-old catcher has been out since March 7 with a sprained right knee.

"He's feeling better daily, but it's just been a really slow process," manager David Ross said. "You can imagine being a catcher with the knee barking and swelling up on him. It's taking a minute."

If Romine is not ready for the April 1 season opener against the Pirates at Wrigley Field, P.J. Higgins is positioned to get the nod.

Ranked behind Miguel Amaya, Ronnier Quintero and Ethan Hearn on the Cubs' list of catching prospects, the 27-year-old Higgins has made a steady climb through the minor-league system after being drafted on the 12th round in 2015.

In 2019, Higgins split the season between Class AA Iowa and AA Tennessee and batted .281/.349/.416 with 10 home runs and 57 RBI in 108 games.

The Old Dominion product also has played all four infield positions, and he's made a positive impression this spring. Higgins is hitting .286/.444/.500 with 1 home run and 3 RBI in 12 Cactus League games.

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"The versatility he brings of being able to play a secondary position and the value that has, the ability to make contact, he's always giving good feedback," said Ross, checking off Higgins' attributes. "He's a guy that's quietly paying attention to everything. Pays attention, listens and he's learning a lot. I think he's always trying to get better. He's trying to get better in every aspect of his game.

"I think he's in a nice spot for a young guy that makes an impression on everybody every time he's out there."

Zach Davies started against the A's and allowed 4 hits and 3 walks over 4 innings. Oakland scored an unearned run in the second.

In addition to Contreras' homer, Anthony Rizzo was 3-for-3 with 2 RBI and Ian Happ had a 2-run double.

Before the game the Cubs assigned nine players to minor-league camp, reducing their spring roster from 47 to 38.

Pitchers James Norwood, Kyle Ryan and Justin Steele were optioned to Class AAA Iowa and lefty Brailyn Marquez was sent to AA Tennessee.

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